Today My Daily Art Display returns to the Netherlands for its featured artist. Today I am looking at a painting by the 17th century Dutch Golden Age artist Pieter de Hooch. He was a contemporary of the great Jan Vermeer and there are some similarities between their works which we will look at later.
Pieter de Hooch was born in 1629 in Rotterdam, just three years before the birth of Vermeer. He was the eldest of five children. His father Hendricksz de Hooch was a bricklayer whilst his mother Annetge Pieters was a midwife. Pieter studied art in Haarlem at the studio of Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem, the prolific Dutch Golden Age landscape painter. His earliest employment was with Justus de la Grange a linen merchant and art collector where he acted as servant and general helper and it is thought that he paid for his board and lodgings by giving la Grange paintings some of his paintings, which was often the way aspiring artists managed to survive. De Hooch went with la Grange on many of his business trips throughout Holland, including the town of Delft where he moved to temporarily in 1652, and on a more permanent basis in 1654 and 1655 during which time he joined the Guild of St Luke, the painters’ guild in Delft.
In 1654, whilst living in Delft, he married Jannetje van der Burch and the couple went on to have seven children. In Delft he came under the influence of two of the town’s greatest painters, Carel Fabritius and Nicolaes Maes. In the 1640’s, these two artists were originators of the Delft School, a group of mid-17th century Dutch Golden Age painters named after its main base, the town of Delft. It is best known for genre painting, such as images of domestic life, views of households, church interiors, courtyards, squares and the streets of the city. The Delft School of painting in the 1650’s would number as its members the great Jan Vermeer and today’s featured artist.
Pieter de Hooch’s work at this time, both in style and subject matter, was in many ways similar to the paintings of Vermeer, who was still living in Delft at that time. De Hooch’s paintings, like Vermeer’s, were small works and though he sometimes painted open-air scenes and tavern genres he preferred painting two or three figures occupied with their normal daily duties and often shown in a sober interior interrupted only by the streaming in of radiant light from outside which, if by magic, transforms the scene. At this time, the family unit was central to an increasing middle-class Dutch society, and de Hooch’s main characters in his works include friends, families and maids. The world we see depicted in his paintings are glimpses of life seen unobtrusively through open doors and windows. His works, which showed the simple life of the local inhabitants, were free of sentimentality and moralising. Art historians believe that this period in Delft saw de Hoochcomplete his greatest works and that the artist was at this time at the height of his artistic powers.
In 1661, when Pieter de Hooch was thirty-two, he and his family moved on to Amsterdam. De Hooch’s decision to leave Delft was undoubtedly brought on by the expectation of a larger market for his paintings in the flourishing and prosperous commercial centre of Amsterdam. It was here that he found a wealthier, more ambitious clientele, and the artwork they required was not of homely family scenes but paintings depicting extravagantly dressed people in contrived luxurious surroundings, such as country villas with palatial halls and their sumptuous marble interiors. The patrons also wanted their paintings to be on a much large scale than he had tended to do in Delft.
In 1667 life took a turn for the worse for Pieter de Hooch. His wife died leaving him, aged just 38, to bring up their large family. Her death hit him hard and he struggled to cope with bringing up his young children. Art critics believe that his struggle to survive affected his work. His mental and physical health deteriorated and he died in 1684 in an Amsterdam mental asylum. He was aged just 55.
The featured painting today is entitled Card Players in a Sunlit Room which he completed around 1658 whilst still living in Delft. The finished work remained in Holland for almost one hundred and seventy years until it was bought by Lord Farnborough for King George IV of England in 1827. It is now housed in the Royal Collection in London. Before us we have two men and a woman sat at a table playing cards with another male onlooker standing besides the woman, pipe in hand, surveying the card game. The mood of the painting is one of calmness. There is an air of contemplation among the players. This is not an animated scene, the participants are restrained. The work is quite detailed in the way de Hooch has depicted the playing cards, the raised glass in the man’s hand and the broken pipe on the floor in the right foreground. We fix our eyes on the fragments of the pipe on the floor and the five of spades playing card and cannot help but wonder why the artist has included them in the painting. Was there some symbolism to its inclusion? Should we look to interpret the existence of the abandoned pipe fragments and the single card on the floor or I wonder if the artist just wanted to get us to do what we are doing right now – trying to solve a mystery, when none exists!
One aspect of this painting which we have seen before in some of his other works is the setting of an inner room with an open door letting us see out into a much brighter exterior. Observe the way de Hooch depicts the light flooding in from the sunlit courtyard in the middle ground of the painting, through the doorway into the interior, lighting up some parts of the room and some of the card players, whilst other parts are cast in shadow. It is if de Hooch wants to showcase his skill in how he handles light as it falls over different surfaces. Look how he has depicted the effect the sunlight has on the translucent curtains and the small panes of glass in the windows. Again see how de Hooch has allowed the light streaming in through the door play on the card players, and by so doing, defining the form of their figures.
The paintings of Pieter de Hooch often exhibited a sophisticated and delicate treatment of light which was very similar to what we see in many of Jan Vermeer’s works, who as I said earlier, lived in Delft at the same time as de Hooch. Art historians in the nineteenth century had originally assumed that Vermeer had been influenced by de Hooch’s work, but the opposite is now being seriously considered.